Error, Blame, and the Law in Health Care - An Antipodean Perspective

William B. Runciman, Alan F. Merry, Fiona Tito

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

99 Citations (Scopus)


Patients are frequently harmed by problems arising from the health care process itself. Addressing these problems requires understanding the role of errors, violations, and system failures in their genesis. Problem-solving is inhibited by a tendency to blame those involved, often inappropriately. This has been aggravated by the need to attribute blame before compensation can be obtained through tort and the human failing of attributing blame simply because there has been a serious outcome. Blaming and punishing for errors that are made by well-intentioned people working in the health care system drives the problem of iatrogenic harm underground and alienates people who are best placed to prevent such problems from recurring. On the other hand, failure to assign blame when it is due is also undesirable and erodes trust in the medical profession. Understanding the distinction between blameworthy behavior and inevitable human errors and appreciating the systemic factors that underlie most failures in complex systems are essential for the response to a harmed patient to be informed, fair, and effective in improving safety. It is important to meet society's needs to blame and exact retribution when appropriate. However, this should not be a prerequisite for compensation, which should be appropriately structured, fair, timely, and, ideally, properly funded as an intrinsic part of health care and social security systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)974-979
Number of pages6
JournalAnnals of Internal Medicine
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished or Issued - 17 Jun 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine

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